Dougie ponders life after Garcia


From the University of Toronto "the Varsity" (August, 1996)

by Andrew Potter

The Polaroids of the title of Douglas Coupland's Polaroids from the Dead refer to a series of short pieces set at a Grateful Dead concert in Oakland, California. Coupland mentions in the introduction of the book that part of his goal was to "convey the sense of joy" felt by the concert goers, and through these snapshots, he seems to be trying to articulate a sense of something real or authentic in a world in which irony is king.

But the problem is that Deadheads are inherently iannoying, and by populating these stories with a stereotyped cross-section of hippiedom - aging acid and granola heads, yuppified hipsters, and teens he derisively calls "the McDead" - Coupland seems unsure as to what he finds worthwhile in the whole scene. So we get a great exchange between two suitably ironic twentysomethings who had gone to see the show on a lark. In the sanctuary of their car after the show, one begs th eother to put in a tape: "Song about robots - written by cash registers. Anything to counteract that hippie noise."

The best material in Polaroids is in Part Two, "Portraits of People and Places." Douglas Coupland is a notoriously reluctant interviewee, but the spare relaxed writing in these pieces allows us as a intimate a look at his life as we are ever going to get. Particularly good is his essay on the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver, where the reader can almost taste his love for the bridge, the city, and the mountains beyond.

Even when Coupland gets all weird and metaphysical, like in "Two Postcards from the Bahamas," he still manages to be passionately engaged without getting sappy or sentimental. With the writing stripped of the usual jargon-laden, neologistic Doug-speak, we find Coupland at his most honest: "And here's something we've all noticed: During power failures we sing songs, but the moment the electricity returns, we atomize. I am choosing to live my life in a permanent power failure. I look at the screens and glossy pages and I don't let them become memories."

Which makes the final third of the book all the more puzzling. "Brentwood Notebook" is a look at the Los Angeles suburb where Marilyn Monroe lived, and where Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered.

In this extended piece, Coupland peers behind the simulacrum of normality that extreme wealth can construct and sees the dark underbelly of a place populated by the "post-famous" and the "denarrated". Brentwood residents are people who literally exist solely to be rich and famous; because they see life as an achievement and not a process, their existence ceases to follow any narrative trajectory. They live in a place without history and without community.

All of which is fair enough. America is a weird, sick place, and Los Angeles is perhaps the most cancer-ridden part. But Coupland peppers his own observations with copies of Brentwood restaurant menus, classified ads from the local newspaper, and excerpts from magazine articles about residents. And while the arcana might help underscore the connections he wants to draw between the ahistorical and the amoral, itundermines his desire to keep it all from contaminating his memories. our endless obsession with all things O.J., and the fact that the names of the 27 present and former Brentwood residents Coupland lists are instantly recognisable, shows that it already has.

Coupland has always been ambivalent about popular culture. His previous books have alternated between an ascetic desire for simplicity and quietude (Generation X, Life After God) and an almost gleeful engrossment with the crassness of the modern dystopia (Shampoo Planet, Microserfs). In his latest book, this tension goes unresolved, leaving the reader feeling as unsure as the author.